Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Equinox

    The summer equinox has arrived here at Kurtwood Farms.  Actually it has arrived everywhere in this hemisphere, but I am enjoying it here at the farm. The weather is perfect, sun shining, warm yet not too hot and there is the distinct feeling that the sunlight will never ebb.  
    The contractors have finished for the day, the workmen gone home.  The animals have been fed and watered, the cows milked.  The milking parlor has been scrubbed down and the evening milk is cooling is the chiller. Surprisingly no neighbors are running lawnmowers to disturb the calm. All is right with the world.  
    Dinner this evening was divine and of this place, this terroir.  A tranche off a beef rib eye, with a bit of fat on the edge, aged for two weeks.  This was from the last calf slaughtered:  Bruno, a beautiful calf, the son of Dinah, head cow at Kurtwood Farms.  The meat had hung for 14 days before being frozen to dry a bit and concentrate its flavors.  I savor those flavors this evening, weeks later.
    The steak was sauted on a hot steel pan with a bit of pork fat.  It sputtered and popped and browned to the surface of the steel.  I flipped it, seared the other side and left it to finish cooking on the heat.  The smell of the beef filled the smokey room.
   When the steak had the feel and give of a medium rare steak --  saignant, I moved it to my waiting plate to rest.  None of that cover it with a sheet of foil stuff, I wanted to see it as I finished the sauce.  A few onions went onto the steel pan to add a bit of bite and then a splash of red wine to deglaze and pull those crunchy bits form the pan.  A big lump of beef jelly from the cooler sputtered as it melted on the heat.  The onions cooked, the stock melted and the sauce began to reduce.  A lump of golden Jersey butter finished out the sauce giving it a shine and a luxury that the steak deserved.
    The juices from the waiting steak went back into the pan, a final swirl and the sauce graced the large white plate.  Cracks of black pepper added some bite to the pretty plate.  No prissy garnish, no chopped herbs to mess it, just the brown earthy sauce and the crusty brown beef.
    The sun had begun its slow descent by this time to the horizon.  The dogs huddled at my feet expecting a piece of beef that would never come.  Each bite was savored.  Nothing was wasted, all was enjoyed, a scrap of bread licking the sauce left on the plate.
    A bowl of rhubarb finished the meal, sweetened a bit but holding onto its sour roots.  The red color was disarming, nothing cherry like about this rhubarb.  Its classification as a vegetable got me off the hook for not having a salad or a branch of broccoli in sight in spite of a garden filled with greenery a few steps from the kitchen door.
    Not a very summery meal on this high holiday of summer.  But is was a great meal, one to savor bite by bite while reflecting on the year that has been as we peak and slide down the other side of June.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Barn Begins

    Here at Kurtwood Farms, the landscape is changing.  Today the contractor began work on the foundation for the new cow barn.  Months ago I decided that a barn for the cows would be a good thing and mentioned it to Frederic Brillant, the local Island French timber framer.  After many discussions about bovine needs and characteristics he came up with a plan.  A simple open barn just to keep the ladies out of the rain during the winter and a room for hay and grain and a simple stall for calving.  
The plans were routed through an assortment of King County offices, making a lot of beaurocrats happy to put their stamp of approval on them.  I am pleased to announce that it will not be built on a septic system, nor on a wetland, nor on th e property line, nor compromise my historic home.  
For the past four years my cows have spent their winters outside in the weather.  In the worst nights of storm and rain they would move to the woods and point their heads into the bushes. It made me crazy.  I would spend the night worrying about them, yet never knowing really what to do.  Or even really knowing if it bothered them.  They would get wet certainly, but was that okay?  They never really seemed sick or upset and always marched into the milking partlor the next morning and gave a respectable amount of milk.
I asked a friend of mine who had grown up on a dairy farm what he thought -- did I really need a barn for them?  His reply was perfect:  'the barn is for you;  if it makes you worry less then build it, the cows will be fine.'  
And so it has begun.  The foundation will be poured later in the week and then Frederic will begin to assemble the timbers that will be the structure of the barn.  Updates to follow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stray Voltage -- Who Knew?

For four years now I have had dairy cows here at the farm.  Over the course of tending to them and milking them twice daily during those many seasons, I feel that I have amassed a  fair amount of bovine experience.  I certainly am aware of my shortcomings but at least I knew where they were.  I was humbled this week by a bizarre cow problem.
The dairy building is a small concrete building that I had built three years ago to chill the milk, store it, bottle it and to hold the dairy equipment.  On one side of it is a small portico that the cows pass through on their way to the milking parlor adjacent to the dairy.  It is a concrete slab that is integral to the milk house and covered by a metal roof.
This past wet, rainy week one of the cows came up to the porch, had two of her hoofs on the muddy ground and two on the concrete slab.  Immediately she began to buckle and writhe.  I thought she had something stuck in one of her hoofs at first and proceeded to encourage her to continue through the porch so I could check it out. She continued to dance across the concrete appearing at this point to be having a heart attack if cows can have such a condition.  
It was frightening and fascinating all at the same time.  Once she passed over the concrete and onto the sidewalk leading into the milking parlor it appeared to cease.  The next cow, however, appeared to have the same problem minutes later.  At this point it was apparent that it was not a condition that one cows was afflicted by, but rather an environmental issue.
At the same time as the bovine-concrete revulsion, the large blast chiller that cools the milk began having odd problems;  blowing circuits and shutting down at the end of its cycle.  I surmised an electrical problem in the milk house.
My local friendly electrician Jason was called and informed of this bizarre occurrence. I expected him to tell me that he felt I was insane, but even if he felt that way, he kept it to himself and arrived that afternoon to investigate.  As there are few dairies on this suburban island, his expertise was more in wiring media rooms for the latest flat screen TV than in hooking up dairy barns. Luckily he is a curious guy and made some calls, brought out a voltage meter and began poking around.
As it happens there is an entire part of the Electrical Code that deals with dairy barns.  Cows, I know now, are extremely sensitive to, among other things, stray voltage.  They have the ability to pick up a half of a volt of electricity as it flows through a slab of concrete.  At one stray volt cows can get so disturbed as to dry up and cease producing milk.  We were getting readings of as much as two volts off of the metal roof and galvanized downspouts that connect to the concrete pad.  Maybe it was my thick rubber boots, but on my hands and knees I was unable to detect anything on this seemingly dull, un-pulsing concrete slab.  
Jason hooked up a few grounding wires, made plans to sink a few deep grounding rods, but mostly we just looked for ways to keep the cows away from the building.  Luckily cows other great qualities are the ability to never forget anything and to revel in routine.  The next morning after the great shocking trek to milking, neither Boo nor Francesca had any interest in coming near the milk house.  They appear very docile and loving, but 850 pounds of bovine anchored into the ground with pointed hoofs is no match for my slender frame attempting to pull them.
The cows have found a new path to milking that they are happy with, Jason is reading up on the electrical dairy protocol and I have another notch on my dairyman's belt.  

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chicken Tractor De Luxe

Kurtwood Farms has a new addition: a shiny new chicken tractor.  Shipped in from points east and assembled at great frustration over a number of hours on Saturday, it is now home to 25 content hens.

The basic concept of the Chicken Tractor is thus:  a secure bottomless box, filled with chickens, is moved daily to a new patch of pasture.  In the process the birds feast on the bugs and detritus of the pastures cow manure and fresh grass.  As the community moves often, there is never the build up of chicken manure or the problems associated with such deposits and 
only the benefits of fertilizing the pastures.

Joel Salatin of PolyFace farm in Virginia coined this term and probably the concept as well.  The problem has always been trying to make a box that is secure from racoons on the ground and hawks in the air that together can decimate a flock of birds in a matter of days.  A home made tractor tends to be top heavy and just plain too heavy to move daily. High winds will blow the contraption over sending birds scurrying in all directions in the middle of a storm.

The solution here is a commercially produced chicken tractor.  Made of sheet aluminum and quite well designed.  Heavy from the insane number of little nuts and bolts and washers, yet low enough to the ground the keep it tight in spite of potentially inclimate weather. 

By day two I am still quite optimistic.  The cows were most curious of the shiny foreign object in their pasture but moved on after a few minutes of sniffing it out.  Large slicks of cow slobber dulled it up a bit however.

My nightmare was of coming back in the afternoon to find the grass littered with twisted bits of aluminum sheets, chickens all asunder and some very smug bovines.  As it happened, the first day went off without a problem.   Racoons may still find some clever way to reach under and grab the docile birds sleeping through the night, but I am hopeful they will give up quickly and move on to other options of feeding themselves.

This tractor is filled with young egg laying hens.  If successful another chick coop on wheels will be ordered and inhabited with meat birds.  The idea of a pan of golden brown roasted birds pulled out of the wood fired oven on a rainy winter evening makes me able to tackle another box of many nuts, bolts, washers and oddly written assembly directions.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Eating Crow

I am generally not an angry man.  Lately, however, my emotions have been pushed to great sadness, anger and frustration.  Not for any great interpersonal relationship I might have, but rather towards the crows that cohabit this farm with me.

At the end of Winter I decided to till up one of the larger paddocks that I had kept sheep in lately and turn it into a field to plant Winter food for the livestock.  Seeds from England, Scotland and the east coast of the U.S. were ordered and shipped in.  Giant rape, thousand headed kale, field corn, chicories and mangels were bought and readied to be planted.

The field was cleared and tilled and prepared.  Some of the seeds were planted in flats in the greenhouse and readied for Spring.  The corn planter was found in the old shed and dusted off, in anticipation of warm weather.

As the soil warmed up I began planting out forage starts and seeding the corn in long parallel rows, dreaming of the day when I could just squeeze down the rows, high stalks on either side of me and hidden from anyones view.  

The corn germinated nicely and begin to grow, producing a field of verdant ribbons visible from the hill above.  The starts were set out and began to take root in the freshly tilled field.  And then the problems began.

Every morning I would walk through the field on my way to feed the sheep nearby.  At first just a little damage was done:  the odd plant would be laying on its side, its root drying in the sun. By the end of the first week, the paths were littered with plants, pulled out by their yet anchoring roots.  The corn rows were plagued by the same problems.  Small corn stalks, two inches tall, laying on their sides, dead.

Each morning I would try replanting what I could.  Then when certain death awaited the starts I would bring in new starts from the greenhouse to take the vacant spot.  I began replanting corn in the odd hole were there had once been a hearty sprout.  

My frustration grew daily.  I stood to loose all the plants needed to feed my animals in the fall and early winter and would have to buy in grains to keep the pigs happy.  I then remembered a remedy published in some odd farming book.  If you could kill one of the crows and hang it in the field, the others would take the hint and stay away.  Crows are smart and quite perceptive of the situation around them.  I surmise that they have chosen this field to torment as it is a long way from the house and rarely visited by humans.

I planned to pull the shot gun out of the closet, load it with bird shot and hide in the hedgerows early the next morning to take out one of the black demons.  I really didn't want to. I would really prefer to be sitting in the kitchen with a cup of hot coffee and the latest cookbook enjoying the time before milking rather than laying on my belly in the grass ready to ambush a raven.  I also didn't think I was a good enough shot to pull it off.

And then my luck changed.  Driving around in the afternoon, doing my errands I came across a dead crow in the middle of the park and ride lot.  Just lying there.  Already dead.  No apparent trauma, no sign of violence.  Almost as if it had died of old age while flying and gently fell to the ground.  I quickly pulled over, grabbed it and put it in the back of my truck.

I marched out to the field with string, the crow and a couple of fence posts.  Between the two posts the crow was hung so that it would twist with the breeze, making it very visible from anywhere near the field.  Minutes later as I walked down the hill to the house, I heard the tell-tale sign of angry crows.  Not just the  basic craw-craw but a more emotional, mad craw-craw. 
When I went back to continue filling in the empty patches where there had once been corn seedlings, I saw the black birds circling around and around the field.  

Not sure if I will be given peace from the crows by the sight of the dead edifice in the center of the field, but it quells my anger at least for the day.  Only time will tell if the newly reseeded corn is safe.